After a First Round that left us pleading for some drama, the Madness has arrived with a fiery bracket-busting vengeance. The first night of the Sweet 16 (Thursday, March 23rd) saw three teams miss game-winning shot opportunities at the buzzer, and yet another no. 2 seed fall (Arizona). Maybe next year, Sean Miller.
But instead of dwelling on how much red my bracket is sporting, why not get excited about what the future holds? The Elite Eight begins Saturday night (March 25th), and the first two games have the potential to be real nail-biters. Here are my picks for the first night.
Xavier Musketeers vs. Gonzaga Bulldogs (-8.5, 145.5 o/u)
One drought is about to come to an end, as the Musketeers and Bulldogs are currently tied for the most NCAA Tournament wins (27) without a Final Four appearance.
After losing sophomore guard Edmond Sumner, Xavier’s season looked bleak. Before beating DePaul in their regular season finale, they’d lost six straight games. Xavier used a win over Butler in the Big East Tournament to help them limp into the tournament. But this is a brand new team. The Musketeers have not only taken down no. 6 Maryland, but also no. 3 Florida State and no. 2 Arizona.
Trevon Bluiett has been incredible, averaging 25 PPG in the tournament, while Malcolm Bernard and JP Macura are playing way beyond their expectations, as well. Macura and Sean O’Mara will have to keep up with their work on the glass for Xavier to continue this magical run.
As the no. 1 seed in the West, it hasn’t come so easy for the Bulldogs, who have only lost one game all season. After getting out to a 22-point lead against Northwestern in the Second Round, Gonzaga nearly let the Wildcats come all the way back in the second half. With the assistance of a blown goaltending call, the Bulldogs were able to hang on for a six-point victory. In the Sweet 16, the Zags found themselves trailing by three after Jevon Carter connected from behind the arc with just 1:46 to play. Two Daxter Miles Jr. misses from the charity stripe on the Mountaineers next possession allowed the Bulldogs to reclaim the lead for good.
Turnovers have been an issue for Gonzaga, specifically for Nigel Williams-Goss, and they have not made teams pay from the free throw line as they normally do. Mark Few’s squad will have to protect the ball better against Xavier, and find a way to slow Bluiett.
This line seems a little ridiculous. Gonzaga has failed to put teams away and protect leads in the tournament, while no team has had an answer for Bluiett. I’ll take the points and bet on the Musketeers to stay hot.
Pick: Xavier (+8.5)
Oregon Ducks vs. Kansas Jayhawks (-6.5, 156.5 o/u)
After losing Chris Boucher in the Pac-12 Tournament, many believed Oregon was destined for an early exit in the big dance. But Jordan Bell and Mr. March (Tyler Dorsey) have risen to the occasion, helping Oregon down Rhode Island and Michigan in one possession games.
Oregon has defended the perimeter very well in the tournament, but will have their hands full with a Kansas squad that is proving they can score from just about anywhere.
If there is a team playing better ball than the Jayhawks right now, please point them out. With a 98-66 victory over Purdue in the Sweet 16, Kansas became the first team to score at least 90 points in its first three tournament games since UConn in 1995. The three-headed monster of Frank Mason III, Josh Jackson, and Devonte’ Graham have punished teams from all over the court, while their active defense is creating plenty of turnovers.
The Ducks have been consistently bailed out by big-time shots late in games. But I don’t see that opportunity presenting itself in this one. Kansas will continue to roll, and control this game from start to finish.
Pick: Kansas (-6.5)
(Photo Credit: Phil Roeder from Des Moines, IA, USA (NCAA Basketball) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)